Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Real Comparison

By Jackson Baker

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Even as William Jefferson Clinton’s once-promising rendezvous with destiny kept turning inexorably into a date with oblivion, there was something familiar about his unhappy metamorphosis. Finally, a name attached itself to this eerie deja vu: Elvis.

The presidential candidate who blew “Heartbreak Hotel” out of his sax on Arsenio, the triumphant chief executive whose Secret Service code name was Elvis, the Bubba who liked to think of himself as the essence of baby-boomer rock-and-roll: Bill Clinton had done what he could to make his private fantasy life clear. And now the president seemed to be rounding to his close in the manner of his archetypal idol.

Not with drug overdoses nor with a literal death, of course (though some kind of curtain was surely coming down on Clinton). And not even with obesity, though the sometimes thunder-thighed president had more than once flirted with that prospect. No, the chief way in which Clinton’s personal history was headed toward an intersection with Elvis’ was in the manner of repute.

Though inveterate fans of both might continue to regard them as they wanted to be seen, as classic studs in the style of Valentino or JFK, the fact is that both men increasingly stood revealed to posterity as beings closer to Pee Wee Herman, as practitioners of a furtive, kinky, essentially masturbatory sex.

That much was obvious even before the more lurid details of the voluminous Starr Report headed for Capitol Hill and the Internet. The episode in which Miss Monica sported with a cigar and a transfixed president with himself had become so well known that you didn’t have to be Leno or Letterman to come by a good punchline or two. Did Clinton keep the PLO’s Yasir Arafat waiting? “Well, heck, I offered him a cigar!” Arafat: “Vahr-y good cigar, Meester President. From North Carolina?” Clinton: “No, Va-gina.” It was the inevitability of such jokes – even more than any presumed public revulsion – that had made Clinton’s presidency increasingly untenable.

Elvis was, in a way, luckier. His repressed, voyeuristic habits, his fixation on virginal Lolita-like nymphs whom he could talk into donning white panties and wrestling with each other while he kept hands off and watched: The disclosures of all this came after his death. As did the revelation that he withheld himself from sex with his wife for years at a time. The legend of the King of Rock-and-Roll, whose spontaneous bumps and grinds – as fully spiritual as they were physical – symbolized the coming of the sexual revolution, was too intact to be shattered.

Clinton, however, must ride out the damage to his image, even as he stands defrocked. In a significant way, it’s unfair. He, after all, did regenerate his party, steer the nation to a compromise politics, keep the peace, and maintain the economy on an even keel.

And, even though Freud is increasingly out of fashion, it wouldn’t do for us to forget what he taught us about sublimation – the means by which a repressed personal libido can transform itself into the energy of great public deeds.

Elvis Presley’s reputation as an avatar of historic change is secure; perhaps in the end so will Bill Clinton’s be, his current embarrassment notwithstanding. But, to invert a currently popular catchphrase, that will be then; this – unfortunately for the president – is now. For the time being, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is as close as it gets to being Lonely Street.


Jackson Baker is a senior editor of the Flyer.


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